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MIHE Blog News, views and insights from Macmillan International Higher Education

Why Development Will Not Stop Migration

by Hein de Haas 26th November 2019

Hein de Haas discusses the myths of 'South-North' migration and the relationship between development and migration.


Among the many myths perpetuated about migration, one of the most common is that ‘South–North’ migration is essentially driven by poverty and underdevelopment. Consequently, it is often argued that stimulating economic development would reduce migration from developing countries to North America and Europe. However, this ignores evidence that most migration neither occurs from the poorest countries nor from the poorest segments of the population. In fact, the paradox is that development and modernization initially leads to more migration.

Historical experiences show that societies go through migration transitions as part of broader development processes. In their seminal study of large-scale European migration to North America between 1850 and 1913, The Age of Mass Migration, Timothy Hatton and Jeffrey Williamson found that trans-Atlantic migration was driven by the mass arrival of cohorts of young workers on the labour market, increasing incomes and a structural shift of labour out of agriculture towards the urban sector. The rapidly industrializ­ing Northwestern European nations therefore initially dominated migration to North America, with lesser developed Eastern and Southern European nations fol­lowing suit only later.

This pattern also seems to apply to contemporary migration. Recent advances in data and analysis have improved insights about the relationship between devel­opment and migration. In 2010, newly available global data on migrant populations enabled me to do the first global assessment of the relationship between levels of development and migration. The figure below shows how levels of emigration and immi­gration are related to development levels, as measured by the Human Development Index (HDI). The pattern for immigration is linear and intuitive: more developed countries attract more migrants. The relation between levels of human development and emigration is non-linear and counter-intuitive: middle-income countries tend to have the highest emigration levels. This finding has been confirmed by later studies using global migration data covering the 1960–2015 period, which all demonstrate that increases in levels of economic and human development are initially associated with higher levels of emigration.
Source: Hein de Haas, Migration Transitions. Oxford, International Migration Institute, University of Oxford (2010).
Only when countries achieve upper-middle income status, such as has recently been the case with Mexico and Turkey, does emigration decrease alongside increasing immigra­tion, leading to their transformation from net emigration to net immigration coun­tries. In a recent paper, Michael Clemens estimated that, on average, emigration starts to decrease if countries cross a wealth-threshold of per-capita GDP income levels of $7,000–8,000 (corrected for purchasing power parity), which is roughly the current GDP level of India, the Philippines and Morocco.

Development in low-income countries boosts internal and international migration because improvements in income, infrastructure and education typically increase people’s capabilities and aspirations to migrate. Particularly international migration involves significant costs and risks which the poorest generally cannot afford, while education and access to informa­tion typically increases people’s material aspirations. Education and media exposure also typically accelerate cultural change which changes people of the ‘good life’ away from rural and agrarian lifestyles towards urban lifestyles and jobs in the industrial and service sectors. The inevitable result is increasing migration to towns, cities and foreign lands.

Middle-income countries therefore tend to be the most migratory and international migrants predominantly come from relatively better-off sections of origin populations. Although these are averages that cannot be blindly applied to individual countries, it seems therefore very likely that any form of development in low-income countries such as in sub-Saharan Africa, South- and South-East and Central America will lead to more emigration in the foreseeable future. More generally, this shows the inadequacy of traditional push-pull models to explain migration and the need for research-driven views on migration.
Featured image credit: Photo by Jan-Niclas Aberle. Available on Unsplash via the Unsplash license.